Obama Jobs Plan: Unemployed Tried To Pressure Senators On Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON -- A throng of the out-of-work and underemployed gathered in the atrium of a Senate office building Tuesday afternoon to urge lawmakers to pass President Barack Obama's jobs bill. As expected, the lawmakers did not listen. The $447 billion package failed in a Senate vote on Tuesday night, with 46 Republicans and two Democrats voting to filibuster the bill.
But the job seekers had tried to make their case earlier. Standing alongside clergy and labor leaders, they asked that senators set politics aside and support the president's broad plan, which calls for infrastructure spending, payroll tax cuts and the extension of unemployment benefits set to expire next year, among other stimulus initiatives. With unemployment still hovering stubbornly above 9 percent, several of them said it had been months or even years since they last enjoyed steady work.
"I feel useless. I need a job. I feel like I don't matter," said Linda Evans, a home health care provider for the elderly who lost her job three years ago after her employer's finances deteriorated. "I loved being tired from working with the elderly. Now I'm tired from being depressed."
The failure of the jobs bill in the Senate came as no surprise. Republicans had roundly criticized the package as unaffordable, while even some Democrats who expect to find themselves in tight electoral races next year had hinted that they might not support it on fiscal grounds. The White House was already laying plans to push the separate provisions of the bill that congressional leaders may find palatable, including the payroll tax cuts and funding to prevent more teacher layoffs. Republicans have indicated that the overall jobs bill stands no chance in the House either.
Sister Simone Campbell was among the Washington religious leaders who appealed to lawmakers on social justice grounds. She said she found it ironic that several senators seemed unwilling to support the jobs package for their out-of-work constituents because it could imperil their own jobs in Congress.
"That's their job -- to do the tough votes," Campbell said. "All of us know people who are out of work and suffering."
Andre Henson, 23, told HuffPost that he's been basically unemployed since early this year, when he lost a position as a line cook on a local cruise ship -- a job he'd held for two-and-a-half years. Since then he's survived mostly on odd jobs done for cash, like helping people move, while he's applied unsuccessfully for a slew of posts in the retail, construction and fast food industries.
Henson said he has a 9-month-old daughter for whom it's hard to afford diapers now. He's been crashing with relatives while on a waiting list with the homeless shelters.
"I've applied for dozens and dozens of jobs, and I've only had two interviews," said the D.C. resident. "I came out here because I believe in the cause. I'm one of the people they're talking about."
At the Hart Senate Office Building, several of the unemployed and their advocates from Our D.C. tried to make their case at lawmakers' offices, with mixed success. They first visited the office of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who's not exactly a booster for Obama's jobs bill. Toomey was walking down the hall just as the group arrived at his office. He continued briskly on his way, even as he appeared to drop something.
A Toomey staffer then agreed to meet with the unemployed and their advocates in a closed session, but the group left that meeting disappointed. They said the staffer told them Toomey didn't like how the money would be spent and would not support the bill.
They then visited the office of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Staffers there declined to set up a meeting.
The group had slightly better luck at the office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), where they met with a staffer. Members of the group later said the conversation they had in his office seemed encouraging.
With 14 million Americans currently out of work, a primary concern of those visiting the senators Tuesday was the extension of unemployment benefits. According to the worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project, nearly two million people could see their unemployment benefits cut off in January 2012 alone if Congress doesn't extend the benefits before they expire. And if the federal program isn't reauthorized, many of the newly unemployed will be able to collect only a half-year's worth of benefits through their state programs.
"For struggling businesses and the halting economy, unemployment insurance is what's preserving consumer spending at a moment we need it most," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, in a statement Tuesday. "Withdrawing this crucial stimulus would likely tip the nation back into recession."
Robert Williams, 30, who hasn't had steady work since the spring, said he believes the benefits extension should be passed, along with the other elements of Obama's jobs plan. But he admitted that his own job-search experience has been so dispiriting that he's not sure how much good any plan could do right now.
"I don't know if it will force employers to hire me or take me seriously," Williams said. "My résumé is great. It's never been better."
The D.C. resident said he has a college degree in accounting and doesn't have much trouble finding temporary work in tax season. But during the recession and slow recovery, he has been let go each year once people's taxes are done and then struggled to find work to tide him over. Like Henson, he's applied for dozens of jobs in an array of fields, only to receive a small handful of callbacks. He's landed just two interviews in the last three months.
Lately Williams has been picking up odd jobs and taking temp work when it's available. He said the elusiveness of good, permanent work has baffled him.
"I'm out of ideas," he said.